16 December, 2012

MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR - The Beatles (1967/2012)

Before The Beatles Anthology, the definitive Beatles video documentary was The Compleat Beatles.  On Magical Mystery Tour, the narration states, “The idea was to travel the English countryside in a bus filled with friends, actors and circus freaks, and to film whatever happened.  Unfortunately, nothing did.”  That pretty much sums it up. 

Magical Mystery Tour is not as bad as you may have heard, but it comes close.  It combines vignettes directed by the Beatles individually, with scenes of everyone on the bus having a day out.  As such, it’s half film school project and half gonzo Carry-On film.  It may have sparked a young Spielberg’s interest, but that doesn’t make it any more entertaining or understandable.

To say it doesn’t make any sense is to miss the point, which is that there is no point and it’s not supposed to make sense.  The main problem is that it just doesn’t flow.  And what is so frustrating about the film is that it’s so easy to see how they could have made it work.  The idea of the four (or five) magicians keeping an eye on everything could easily have been used to explain everything that was going on, but as with most of the scenes, it ends up going nowhere. 

The music is the redeeming feature.  Paul is right to say that it’s the only time you can see John Lennon performing I Am the Walrus and that alone makes it worth watching, and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band performing Death Cab for Cutie is pretty good too. 

Although this is the first officially sanctioned release, there have been many bargain-bin editions of Magical Mystery Tour over the years and an old copy shows what an excellent job they have done of the restoration.   The film looks beautiful. The new surround mix is effective but not intrusive.

On the extras side, there’s a commentary from Paul which has flashes of insight among a lot of things we’ve heard before.  There’s the obligatory making-of documentary and a new interview with Ringo as he watches some outtakes.  Two unused scenes are included – Nat’s Dream, which would have worked very well in the film, and Ivor Cutler’s ‘I’m Going in a Field’ which is just baffling.  There’s also a previously unreleased clip for Hello Goodbye, some songs from the film re-cut from outtakes and Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush by Traffic.

Highlight:  I Am the Walrus
Feature:  * * 
Extras: * * * * *
Audio:  Dolby Stereo, Dolby 5.1, DTS

Generic el-cheapo copy

2012 Restoration

15 December, 2012

HELP! - The Beatles (1965/2007)

So this is the famous Help! eh?

The Beatles’ second film was never going to be able to follow the same formula as the first.  This time, a story (of sorts) was needed and was actually confected around all the places the Beatles wanted to visit for locations.  So what we have is Clang, the leader of an eastern death cult about to perform a human sacrifice when it is pointed out to him that the victim is not wearing the sacrificial ring.  The ring – wouldn’t you know it – is on Ringo’s right hand.  Somehow, the cult knows this and tracks him down to find that the ring isn’t coming off.  The Beatles’ own efforts to remove the ring lead them to a mad scientist who decides, for no reason other than that he’s mad, that the ring will allow him to rule the world.  His own attempts to obtain the ring clash with Clang’s and mayhem, as was the fashion, ensues.  Meanwhile, Clang’s offsider Ahme turns good and tries to help the Beatles escape both sets of pursuers. 

The big problem is that underpinning this whole premise is a big dollop of casual racism and it would be drawing a pretty long bow to suggest that the film is satirising such attitudes.  The best you can say is that things were different back then, but it’s not saying much.

Then again, it was as a result of filming Help! that George was introduced to Indian music, which became a lifelong passion. His work to promote it led to international recognition and greater understanding so the film probably did far more good than harm.  It’s a paradox of cultural sensitivity. 

The musical numbers have even less relevance to the film than they did in A Hard Day’s Night, but it scarcely matters.  In fact, they all make great video clips.  Richard Lester directs again and as with A Hard Day’s Night, the film is peppered with clever camera angles and slightly subversive humour.  The wonderful Leo McKern is wasted on the one-dimensional character of Clang, but he plays it with such gusto that it raises the part above its cartoon nature.  Indeed, it’s the great performances from the supporting cast, which also includes Eleanor Bron, Victor Spinetti and Roy Kinnear, that saves the film from just being unutterably silly.  The natural humour of the Beatles themselves is a given but on the whole, Help! the film is inessential. 

The DVD looks and sounds great.  You will need a DTS decoder if you want the surround mix because they haven’t included a Dolby stream.  The second disc has an hour of short documentaries and interviews about the making of the film and the painstaking restoration, as well as some trailers.  There are radio ads hidden in the menus of both discs. 

Highlight:  You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away
Feature:  * * *
Extras:  * * *
Audio:  LPCM Stereo, DTS 5.1

14 December, 2012

The Rules: Merry Christmas

If you ever say “Merry Christmas” as an act of belligerence, and not a message of good cheer, then you don’t get Christmas.

13 December, 2012

An open letter to Paul McCartney

Dear Paul,

You have been a hero to me since I was 13 and I love you like an uncle.  I've defended your honour and your importance on numerous occasions, but dear God, man!

There is a time and a place to express the kind of sentiments contained (however ironically or not) in your song Live and Let Die, and a concert to benefit survivors of a disaster and the families of those who didn't survive IS. NOT. IT!!!

You've beaten the Rolling Stones for the tin-ear award after they sang about crossfire hurricanes.  If you absolutely have to let off fireworks (not the most sensitive thing you can do in such a show either, but still not the most insensitive), then the climax of Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five would have done nicely.

Yeah, I know.  Everyone's a critic, but do you have to make it so bloody easy for them and so hard for us?


A HARD DAY'S NIGHT – The Beatles (1964/2002)

The first really good thing about A Hard Day's Night is there mere fact that it isn't horrendously bad. The Beatles may have been streets ahead of their contemporaries musically, but there was no guarantee that it would translate into film where they would have far less control over how they were presented. And from Summer Holiday to Fun in Acapulco, from Spiceworld to Glitter, pop-star exploitation movies are generally pretty awful. And it would have been so easy for the studio to dull the Beatles' sharp wit so A Hard Day's Night scores highly just for not being that awful.

The Beatles were smart enough to get people who understood and shared their sense of humour. Director Richard Lester was chosen mainly because of his work with the Goons. It's easy to forget that Milligan,Sellers and Secombe were just as important in influencing the Beatles as Presley, Berry or Holly were. Alun Owen's screenplay is also very sympathetic to the Beatles' own style, and even includes a sequence where they reprise some of their best interview moments, like John's “Turn left at Greenland,” quip. For the most part, they just let the Beatles be the Beatles, which is the best thing they could have done.

The plot is a simple day-in-the-life scenario which allows for plenty of adventures and bursts into song without ever appearing too contrived. The running joke of Paul's grandfather (Wilfred Brambell) being a very “clean” old man is probably a reference to his most famous character, Albert Steptoe, who is regularly chided by son Harold for being a “dirty, dirty man.” It could also be to try and distract from the fact he's playing roughly the same character – someone trying to spoil it all for everyone else.

A Hard Day's Night takes what has always been a banal form and raises it to what it really ought to be – a great bit of afternoon entertainment, even for non-Beatles fans, and throws in some quite creative camera work too.

The audio is listed as stereo but when you put it in your player, it will read as 5.1. They have placed all the film dialogue in the centre channel, as per the original mono, but all the songs are in stereo. I can see the sense in that, but the transition from one to the other can be annoying at times.

As far as extras go, too much of a good thing. There is the standard documentary/retrospective on disc one, but disc two gives us interviews with almost every living person involved with the film and it's far more than necessary, especially when we already heard the most important parts in the doco.

Highlight: If I Fell
Feature: * * * * *
Extras: * * ½
Audio: Dolby 5.1 (sort of)

12 December, 2012

LIVE KISSES - Paul McCartney (2012)

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way first:  If you’re the kind of music fan who would prefer Paul McCartney to just keep belting out Get Back and Band on the Run for the rest of his life, then keep walking - there’s nothing for you here.  Likewise, if you don’t think it ever got better than Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra, then you’re going to find little to love in this show.  If your tastes allow for some exploration, then read on.

Doing and album and/or show of old standards has become almost as much a rock cliché as stint in rehab.  Over the years, the quality of such albums has ranged from the sublime (Harry Nilsson’s A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night) to the ridiculous (Robbie Williams’ Swing When You’re Winning).  The fact is that any idiot can buy a hat, hire a decent arranger and sing into a microphone once used by Sinatra.  So why should we follow Macca down this well-worn path?

Well, there are a few good reasons.  Firstly, McCartney is old enough to remember some of these songs when they were current, and to have sung them around the family Joanna so his interest in these tunes has not been confected from a lot of received wisdom.  He has also revealed an ongoing fondness for the style since the early days of the Beatles, from covers of ’Til There Was You and A Taste of Honey, through When I’m Sixty Four and Honey Pie to Warm and Beautiful and Baby’s Request with Wings, he’s already done plenty of dabbling in the genre.  Thirdly, as one of the people who made Abbey Road “da place,” he has no need for the reflected glory of working at Capitol Studios in Hollywood.

He’s also well aware of how many artists have done this before and has taken pains to set this collection apart from them by choosing lesser known songs and going for quiet, subtle versions of the songs where many before him - including some of the originals – preferred to go for bombast.  It’s this approach that makes Kisses on the Bottom and this companion DVD more than just the obligatory standards album. 

The film intersperses the songs with interviews discussing the making of the album and the show.  On a regular concert film this would be a pain but on this one it works fine.  This is mainly because Live Kisses isn’t so much a concert as a live run through of some songs.  As always with a McCartney show, he shares a great camaraderie with the band, led by Diana Krall and featuring Joe Walsh sitting in on Eric Clapton’s parts.  This is another departure from similar albums, where there could be a bit of a master/servant relationship between singer and players.

What really makes this a unique McCartney performance is that for once, it’s entirely about Paul the singer.  Although everyone knows he has one of the greatest voices of the last half-century, that fact has always been parallel to his talents as songwriter, composer, multi-instrumentalist and producer.  And with every song, you can tell he’s chosen it because part of it speaks to him.  This is not a case of the singer putting on an act.  He does present his own interpretations of the songs but never do they deviate from the song’s original meaning.  It’s been said that Paul’s voice is not what it used to be.  Two points on that topic: Firstly, duh!  The man is 70 years old.  You should sound as good at that age.  Secondly, while his voice is considerably weaker than it was in 1967, it does lend itself very well to his intention of bringing out the vulnerability in the songs.  This is not an album he could have made when he was 30.  

The arrangements occasionally veer a little too close to hotel lobby music but for the most part, they are tasteful and understated, neither being too reverential to the originals, nor interpreting them within an inch of their lives.  The one place it doesn’t quite work is on Bye Bye Blackbird which almost becomes a dirge.  They do, however, almost manage to redeem The Glory of Love for me after Beaches pretty well ruined it. 

Most of the film is presented in black and white with a slightly harsh contrast that is less 1940s film and more like early 1960s television.  It suits the music very well though.  One rather annoying aspect is lots of jump cuts early in the piece.  In a show like this, a shot should last for at least one bar of music. 

There’s no denying this DVD has a pretty limited market.  You couldn’t even call it a fans-only release because there will be thousands of fans who will hate him for not making a proper rock album, whatever that means.  There will be others who laud it purely for being McCartney with no other reason.  This show can only be judged for what it is and McCartney, Diana Krall and producer Tommy LiPuma have managed to create a set that strikes the right balance of familiarity and originality, authenticity and playfulness.  If you don’t like it, then you don’t like it, but it’s better than you think.

Highlight: More I Cannot Wish You
Feature:  * * * *

05 December, 2012

For anyone who is confused…

The so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ is all about self-awareness and motivation.

Simply put, some people who cannot work together responsibly have recognised the fact that they can’t work together responsibly and have therefore agreed to do something quite irresponsible if they haven’t managed to work together responsibly by a certain arbitrary date.

Shut up!  It makes perfect sense!